War Games and Winning the Holidays

The holidays are here. Sometimes they seem to sneak up on you, sometimes they don’t so much sneak as lunge. Like this year.

We recently responded to a media request for some thoughts about divorce and the holidays. The question was actually unambiguous: “what do you tell parents who are in the process of or are already divorced and ‘can’t stand each other‘ about how to handle the holidays?”

We mulled that over for more than a few minutes … ‘can’t stand each other.’

Did the reporter think every divorcing and divorced parent ‘can’t stand each other?’ And if so, what about the parents watching their relationships fray but who haven’t begun to contemplate a breakup?  Can they ‘stand each other?’

When you’ve worked with families as intimately and as long as we have you know things are much too complicated to answer the reporter’s question as asked.

We answered by dropping the ‘can’t stand each other’ tag and rolling her qualifier into every other divorced, almost divorced, thinking about it, wishing for it, just noticing some signs the relationship isn’t going to last, and everything in between to simply answer ‘how to handle the holidays’ for all our clients with children.

Simply: You can’t win the holidays. Even if you think you can or, in fact, think you have, you can’t and you didn’t . . .

. . . because whatever you do that makes you think you won will come back to bite you. Hard.

I think we can accept the fact that spouse or ex-spouse or ex-spouse-to-be or ex-spouse-step-parent and/or a host of combinations interaction over the holidays are going to strained, if not palpably tense.

The holidays tend to add another layer to the family(s) dynamic – first, the extended family may be around more which could lead to other family dynamics that just make the parents’ relationship, such as it is, more fraught with potential conflict. Then there’s the children ‘splitting’ time with their parents over the holidays, a situation the adults in the room should – and need to know – is not on the top of anyones list of optimal family time.

This is where a worse, in my experience, dynamic can arise – one or both the parents try to ‘win’ the holiday through lavish gifts, parties, ostentatious gestures, or just becoming ‘the cool parent’ and letting everything go.

They use the holiday to clearly show what a better parent they are. Remember the old Jackie Gleason – Richard Pryor movie The Toy? Remember the kid’s room?  If you saw the movie under the age 18 or so, you really, really wanted the kid’s room, it was amazing it, like living in an F.A.O. Schwartz. If you saw it over age, oh, say, 25 or so you knew exactly where it was going  – Dad can’t buy son’s love. But boy, did Gleason’s character try.

This happens in real life, though renting famous comedians is rarely part of the plan. The holidays are perfect for this because, of course, gifting is expected, fun is expected, expectations are everywhere.

We’ve seen parents try to win the holidays. It happens a lot and  . . . it never works.

Well,  maybe short term while the Xbox is new, or the trip to Orlando is fresh in the kids’ minds, or . . .

Long term, however, it’s a disaster in the works. Kids figure these things out and they do it quickly – they’ll see through it, that’s not a maybe, it’s a certainty. Eventually, it will cause resentment (and disillusion, and …) with the children, on top of the resentment the other parent will inevitably feel watching it from the outside.

Which, of course, feeds back into that dynamic making it incrementally worse. And on and on and . . .

We ask our clients to simply follow the great sense of another ‘80s movie, War Games.  Its last line?

“The only winning move is not to play.”

Written by Meghan Freed